Paraphrasing a quote from a 1970s self-help book disguised as a novel that was of course made into a movie, the greatest lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
You know the ones: Just one drink. Or Everybody does it. Or I look good in this. Or That’s really her number. Or It’s not about the money.
Or the one that’s really popular lately among certain leaders in golf: We had no choice.
I get it. My editors feel the same way about my major championship predictions. Their justification: It’s the Internet. Forty-five minutes from now no one will remember it ever happened.
Nevertheless, there is this joyful indelibility to golf’s big events, one that, at least for now, has nothing to do with the money. Or what murderous dictator is supplying it. The majors aren’t of course devoid entirely of a cash component. But by comparison these days they seem all the more intrinsically pure. And I take a special masochistic kind of joy in wrongly predicting the winners of golf’s seminal events. Somehow being monstrously unsuccessful forecasting an event where winning is still the only thing that matters seems fitting. My foolish certainty reminds me of the way some people apparently felt about buying a purple Nissan Cube on purpose in the fall of 2010, not that I would know. I am ecstatic about being wrong about something oh-so-right.
So once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Only this time we find ourselves at a remarkably new yet quintessentially original U.S. Open venue. With its boundingly wide fairways and laughably short and long par 3s, Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course will play nothing like a traditional USGA track, yet its stately setting feels as vivid as the Oakmonts and Pinehurst No. 2s and Pebble Beaches, an anchor site before the term even existed. How to predict a winner, then, for this most prototypical yet confoundingly distinct piece of property seems at once impossible and obvious. Like Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream, it is the previously unconsidered mix of marshmallow and caramel swirls along with goldfish-shaped fudge pieces that in the end together forms not merely a flavor of ice cream but embodies the very idea of ice cream itself.
Yet it’s been three generations since this national championship has come to La La Land. While it’s true that there have been more U.S. Opens in California in the last 22 years than there had been in the previous 44, none were in the city that somehow manages to give us as much “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” as “Encino Man” and “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2”. (2, mind you, the numeral “2.” That’s like me writing a second prediction piece after choosing Boo Weekley to win the U.S. Open. Which I did, precisely 10 years ago. He shot a smooth 11 over to miss the cut, not surprisingly.)
But I digress. This is a different script. I’m batting .500 for the last four majors. And this is, after all, California where dreams come true. This seventh U.S. Open in California in the last quarter century is all about the show. Just like a movie of the week on ABC in the 1970s, everybody loves prime-time golf. Then again, like “Manimal” and “Cop Rock” sometimes the U.S. Open on the Left Coast gives us Jack Fleck and Scott Simpson instead of Ben Hogan and Tom Watson.
Of course, like “Succession” and “Seinfeld” the last L.A. U.S. Open did give us Hogan 75 years ago, and I believe the City of Angels will send us just such a heavenly result this time. How to get us to that perfect pick? Eliminate the smog and the standstill traffic on the 110 Harbor Freeway and focus specifically on the marquee names on the walk of fame.
So to first cull this year’s field of 156, we looked at the winners of the last six U.S. Opens played in California. The one with the worst World Ranking was Graeme McDowell at 37. So anyone in this year’s field who’s ranked lower than 37 is, as the state’s former governor once said back when he was a working actor, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Next, we looked again at those California champions of this century and found their median best finish in the U.S. Open before winning. That was, impressively, ninth, for this stout group that includes two Woods and a Rahmbo. First blood, indeed.
Next, looking at this year’s true star, the wildly perfect LACC North (like “E.T.” or the shark in “Jaws”), it’s clear that the winner this year must be a magical ball-striker, particularly with the five par 3s. So par-3 scoring average excellence helped cull the field further. Then a combination of exquisite proficiency in strokes gained/off the tee (top 20 percent), approach (top 10 percent) and around the green (top 10 percent) got us further down the line. One further cut, especially relevant at this brand new old venue, I figured this year’s winner needed to have won at a course he had never played professionally before. Like James Dean in “East of Eden,” Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins” or Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky,” this U.S. Open winner at this venue needs to own the stage.
All those numbers left us with four heavyweights: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Tony Finau. Sort of like having a cast led by Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin with a scene-stealer by Alec Baldwin. Like in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” these four seem to be always closing, while the rest are hitting the bricks, hanging out in a hospitality tent along the 17th fairway, and slurring into their Scotch. “Oh, yeah, I used to be a professional golfer. It’s a tough racket.”
But who is big time box office at this moment, who is the Tom Hanks here, the Meryl Streep, the Tom Cruise of this year’s U.S. Open? Given its setting, the answer should have been obvious from the start, forget the number crunching. He is as much golf’s Best Actor as he is its current Irving Thalberg Award winner. Like the honorary Oscar handed to Peter O’Toole at age 78, he should be given a special major championship trophy for lifetime achievement just for how he’s had to handle himself through the Godfather trilogy of the last couple of years, ending in the PIF-PGA Tour merger that feels so much like Godfather III it makes you weep for all that’s been lost.
Who else but the boy from Hollywood should win this week in Tinseltown? Check that, Holywood, home club of one Rory Daniel McIlroy. For golf’s highest q-rating star, I sure hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
After all, it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living or get busy dying.
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